When Hanukkah begins Saturday night, most students in Forsyth County won’t light a menorah to celebrate the Jewish festival of lights.
While they may predominantly celebrate Christmas, the students still get to learn about Hanukkah and other religious and cultural celebrations held in December and throughout the winter.
Huddled in a small circle Thursday morning, three Sharon Elementary School students in Jennifer Magee’s second-grade class were screaming at a dreidel, or spinning top, shouting “nun” and “gimmel.”
The two letters of the Hebrew alphabet are printed on the dreidel, along with the letters hay and shin to symbolize a Jewish expression, “a great miracle happened there,” referring to the reason for celebrating the holiday.
The faith teaches that the miracle happened more than 2,000 years ago, following the destruction of the holy temple. While rebuilding the temple, Jews rounded up enough olive oil to provide light for one day.
Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight, enabling the reconstruction and rededication of the temple.
Pam Quinn, whose son Michael is in Magee’s class, brought the dreidels to class and taught students how to play the game to win special chocolate coins, called gelt.
If the dreidel lands on gimmel, the spinner wins all the coins in the pot; a nun means the spinner gets nothing.
Quinn also brought in a couple of her family’s Hanukkah menorahs, or chanukiahs. The candelabras hold a total of nine candles — eight to celebrate the nights the oil lasted and one to light the others.
Beginning with a single candle on the first night, an additional candle is lit daily until the final night, which this year falls on Dec. 15, when all eight candles glow in remembrance.
“Ms. Magee asked if anybody celebrated other holidays than Christmas and if they would like to share,” Quinn said. “The other kids are really interested in learning about it.
“And it’s important that they learn there are other people in their class and community that do things differently. Other people may be different, but they’re still the same.”
Magee said she’s been incorporating all religions and cultures for nearly 15 years.
“We have such a diverse community, we really try to celebrate other cultures,” she said. “You also get a lot of volunteerism and involvement from the parents … and luckily each year, I have parents that can contribute something from their culture, and each year I get more and more things to do.”
Hanukkah is being recognized in other Forsyth schools as well, including Kelly Mill Elementary, where first-graders spend two weeks participating in in Holidays Around the World.
The students pack symbolic suitcases and take along a pretend passport as they travel to different classrooms representing eight countries across the globe, including China, England and Israel.
Teacher Evelyn Crawford was responsible for Israel, teaching her students about the country, Hanukkah and how traditions are celebrated in America as well.
“The one [Jewish] little boy that’s in my homeroom, when I decked the homeroom out with different dreidels and menorahs, he was so excited,” she said. “I think he felt included and he even brought some things from his home to share with us.”
Crawford said homeroom classes all learn about Christmas, so “we wanted to expose them to things they don’t really know about.”
Among other holidays are Kwanzaa, the Chinese New Year, St. Nicholas’ Day in Germany and Las Posadas in Mexico.
“They all have unique traditions,” Crawford said. “That’s why we have the kids traveling, so we can hone in on holidays to teach them as much as we can.”
Daves Creek Elementary has a similar event celebrating the holidays around the world for its kindergarteners.
Tara Tinsley said her students and those in the seven other kindergarten classes rotate through and learn the different customs associated with holidays in other countries.
“We want kids to be able to value each other’s family values and traditions,” she said. “Most kids only hear about Christmas, so it’s fun for them to learn about the other holidays and the different traditions.
“It’s also part of our social studies standards that they learn about diverse community celebrations and traditions and they love it because we do a lot of hands-on activities.”
While there’s an international event at the school, Magee likes to incorporate different cultures into her curriculum. Hanukkah and other events such as Diwali and Ramadan are taught as part of a unit on Georgia’s history, including ancestry and civil rights.
“In order to stop prejudice, the most important thing is to get rid of the ignorance,” Magee said. “This is such a critical age for them because this is where their core values are set.
“It’s neat when they realize how much they have in common than about their differences.”